The murals by Franco Gaskin could find a new home at Triboro Plaza. Photo by Marcus Santos for New York Daily News.
Harlem artist Franco Gaskin spent 35 years creating more than 400 works on roll-down security gates on 125th St.
By Douglas Feiden | New York Daily News
March 5, 2012
Two dozen world-famous murals painted on roll-down security gates on 125th St. by an artist dubbed the “Picasso of Harlem” could find a new home in an outdoor art gallery at the eastern edge of the strip, state officials say.
The iconic artwork of 84-year-old Franco Gaskin — better known as “Franco the Great” to tourists from Japan, Sweden and Brazil — has been rapidly vanishing as spiffy shops and chichi chains transform the neighborhood’s main street.
Enter the state’s Harlem Community Development Corp., which is working with local elected officials and the grassroots group Save the Gates to move the murals to Triboro Plaza, a neglected stretch of 125th St. between First and Second Aves.
“It will expand the cultural corridor all the way to the East River — and create a destination for art, commerce and tourism in a dead zone near the Triboro Bridge where you rarely see any pedestrians,” said HCDC Director of Planning Thomas Lunke.
But the clock is ticking: Gaskin spent 35 years creating more than 400 vibrant works with African-American themes on the corrugated-steel barriers protecting the storefronts — and only 25 of them are now believed to survive as shops are upgraded and gates are junked.
“Harlem’s history is at risk,” said Dana Harper, a retired police officer who has known Gaskin since he walked a beat in the 28th Precinct as a rookie cop in 1982.
“The murals of Franco the Great helped turn 125th St. around and made it a world-famous tourist attraction — but they’ve been thrown into the trash as new merchants without community ties come into the area.”
Born in Panama, Gaskin first came to Harlem in 1958 and watched in horror as dreary-looking metal gates — so-called crime-fighters — sprouted on 125th St. in the decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
“It was like a prison camp,” he said. “The street was a sea of gates — messy and forbidding and covered with gigantic graffiti.”
Starting in the late 1970s, and working on Sundays when the stores were closed, he took up his paintbrush and lifted Harlem’s image with a brand new, globally recognized art form — the storefront gate mural.
Gaskin worked on both side of the street between Broadway and Lexington Ave., portraying black martyrs like King and Malcolm X and lavish scenes from Harlem's jazz clubs, ballrooms and dance halls.
“I did it for love, I did it for beauty, and I did it for 125th St.,” the street artist told the Daily News as he led a four-hour tour of his masterpieces on Tuesday.
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, says state Sen. Bill Perkins, who represents central Harlem.
“Those gates were the legacy of crime, and he turned them into works of art and a beautification project,” Perkins said. “He took a desolate, lifeless thoroughfare and showed how the magic of art can revitalize a neighborhood.”
The murals opposite the Apollo Theater — seductive ladies in white mink stoles, gentlemen in tuxedos, dancers gliding in air — became a popular stop for tour buses and, over time, the street roared back to life.
In the past decade, soaring rents and gentrification led to the loss of dozens of the mom-and-pop businesses behind the gates, and when larger corporate retailers took their place, they’d typically chuck out the old murals.
Gaskin became a victim of his own success: “I can’t stop progress,” he says. “But I can sure get heartbroken when I see my gates come down.”
The destruction accelerated when a City Council-approved zoning change in 2008 said roll-down steel gates on 125th St. had to be replaced, over 15 years, with see-through gates made of fiberglass that leave shop interiors visible.
To save the surviving 25 murals — some as wide as 22 feet and as tall as 18 feet — an informal group, the Friends of Franco, is setting up a nonprofit, Save the Gates, which can raise money for framing, perservation and storage.
Meanwhile, state economic development officials — backed by Harlem pols, local merchants and Community Board 10 and 11 — have developed a plan to move the gates to Triboro Plaza, where they'd be displayed in an open-air, 24-hour-a-day art museum.
The block includes city-owned land controlled by the Parks Dept., which must sign off on the HCDC plan. Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro says he’ll meet with state officials to “further discuss this proposal and weigh the feasibility of this request.”
“It will be a spash of culture in a distressed area,” says state Sen. Jose Serrano (D-East Harlem).
“This is my contribution to Harlem,” says Franco the Great. “It will be wonderful to see it survive.”